BOB GARFIELD: With a third of California speaking Spanish, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offered his Spanish-speaking constituents some advice. GOVERNOR ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: You've got to turn off the Spanish television set. [LAUGHTER] It's that simple. You've got to learn English. I know that when I came to this country, I did not or very rarely spoke German to anyone. My heart was always in Austria, but I wanted to, as quickly as possible, learn the English language. BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, if they didn't watch a word of Spanish-language television, they probably would learn English quicker. But former L.A. Times reporter Joe Matthews says they'd miss out on the best local television news. After comparing the English broadcasts to the Spanish each night, Matthews concluded it's no contest. JOE MATTHEWS: I discovered just a much more serious, in-depth content on the two Spanish-language newscasts, at the Univision affiliate KMEX and the Telemundo affiliate KVEA. There was actually more coverage of what I would sort of consider the basics of news, state and local, government, broad issues, health care, immigration, and on the English-language stations found - BOB GARFIELD: Car chases, Lindsey Lohan and is your toaster strudel poisoning you? JOE MATTHEWS: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: Stay tuned. JOE MATTHEWS: The greatest example was while the KVEA Telemundo 11 o'clock newscast was taking a strong look at the Iraq war, and real estate foreclosures, you were getting stories about spas you can go to in the middle of the night on the English-language stations. BOB GARFIELD: I saw a bumper sticker once that [LAUGHS] said, "I'm not a vegetarian because I love animals, I'm a vegetarian because I hate plants." [LAUGHTER] And it occurs to me that TV stations don't put trivia and fluff on because they hate news. They do it because they love audience. Is it that the Spanish-language stations haven't figured out yet that they'll get more audience by having less substance, or is the Spanish-speaking audience more attracted to news than their Anglo counterparts? JOE MATTHEWS: There is some argument that they are more attracted to news. They're also getting better ratings. I mean, the local news audiences in English are in decline, but KVEA Telemundo station is actually growing, and the Univision local newscasts at 6 and 11 are really top in the market ratings-wise. You know, at 6pm they've been one or two for years. So, serious news just seems to have built a better audience. BOB GARFIELD: In the print press south of the border, a lot of it is so tabloidy and graphic, in a Police Gazette sort of way, with dead bodies of drug kingpins splashed all across page one. I would have thought that that kind of "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality would have found its way to Spanish-language television in Los Angeles. JOE MATTHEWS: When you talk to the folks making the decisions of what's news on these shows, they say their audience has a very small interest in that. But on many of these nights of the six weeks I looked at, there was a very big crime story. You would see it on both English and Spanish. But the difference in how the stories were covered sort of shows the philosophy.
In the Spanish-language broadcasts you'd see many more people interviewed, and not just crime victims but folks affected, a lot of questions asked about police conduct and police response that you never see addressed.
What's the reason for the difference? If you compare Mexico and here, you're talking about a much broader audience down there than here, I mean, and the kind of folks who will cross a border and move away from family and home, it seems possible to me, might be a bit more serious-minded. BOB GARFIELD: You found much more substantial programming on Spanish-language television. You did not find perfection. There are some issues, like the cleavage factor. JOE MATTHEWS: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Tell me about the darker side of Spanish-language television. JOE MATTHEWS: Well, particularly in Univision, you know, some of the blouses on anchors are pretty darn tight. There's a definite element of sex to sell. There've been a number of serious ethical transgressions. Most notably, the political reporter and a weekend anchor for KVEA, Mirthala Salinas, was the mistress of the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa.
As the story came out, we learned that she had dated the Speaker of the California State Assembly, Fabian Nunez. This was quite a scandal, and I think it's one of the few things that sort of English-language media consumers know about Spanish-language news.
There's also the issue of advocacy. I mean, there's really strong advocacy in the journalism that, you know, I wouldn't, as a recovering newspaper reporter, only out of the business for two months, I wouldn't have dared tried. But that's part of the philosophy; executives at both Telemundo and Univision say that's part of what drives their audience.
And you've seen it most strongly in this national debate over immigration legislation, where you've got people on the news telling you, basically, to show up for marches, or at least how to.
But the good part of the advocacy is it seems to be driving these stations to look at more serious social issues, subjects that no one else has covered. BOB GARFIELD: Do you think over time the Spanish-language broadcasts are, you know, inevitably going to just get worse? JOE MATTHEWS: No, actually. I think the Spanish-language media has an enormous competitive advantage, I think, by covering the news. When you talk to the folks in this, they want to do more of it. They're adding newscasts. They're adding bureaus. They're adding reporters.
I mean, I think the real question is what happens to English-language news. I've heard from a lot of English-language TV news producers and anchors, since the story ran in The Washington Post, and not a one disagreed with the premise, and many talked about their frustration with what their networks have done.
There are a lot of great, great local news reporters who work in English in this town, and I hope, actually, that the competition from Spanish-language will force the English-language stations to be more serious. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Joe. Thank you so much. JOE MATTHEWS: My pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Joe Matthews is an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.